Asian-American Masculinity in Contemporary America

This fall marks the debut of a network sitcom entitled Selfie that reimagines George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion in the age of social media celebrity. The show stars John Cho—of Star Trek and Harold and Kumar—and Karen Gillian—of Doctor Who. The lead casting of Cho, a Korean-American, struck me given the dearth of Asian-American leads in TV and cinema.

In this light, let’s consider Jet Li's breakout role in 2000's Romeo Must Die. In the spirit of the original play, Li and lead actress, Aaliyah, meet as the offspring of rival families (in this case Asian and black gangs in Oakland), put aside their differences to solve a mystery, and fall in love. But instead of sharing a kiss at the end of the film, Aaliyah only hugs Li as the credits roll.

The original final scene did have them kissing, but it was replaced after test audiences reacted negatively to "an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light.” [1] Apparently, Asian-American men can be martial arts masters, but not sexual agents. Clearly this is a bizarre, at best ignorant situation, but it has to be examined in the broader context of how Asian masculinity has historically been constructed in this country.

During the first major wave of Asian immigration to the United States in the second half of the 19th century, many Chinese arrived in California seeking work as gold miners and laborers. As the gold boom came to an end and jobs became scarce, many whites blamed the Chinese for taking jobs from Americans by working for lower wages, with one noted labor leader stating: "The father of a family is met by them at every turn. Would he get work for himself? Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper." [2]

Sinophobia was institutionalized under the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States or becoming naturalized citizens. Other laws, such as the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 and the Geary Act of 1892, imposed restrictions and levied special taxes on immigrants by requiring them to carry resident permits at all times. The cultural backlash of these policies popularized stereotypes of Chinese-American men as effeminate, portraying them as only fit for jobs doing 'women's work' such as childcare and laundry, making employers less likely to hire them for jobs in agriculture or manufacturing. [3] 

Starting at the end of the 19th century, numerous “scientific” works were published that argued Western civilization was being threatened by the people of the Orient. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan discusses a book called “The Rise of the Colored Empires" by Goddard, which Fitzgerald based on a real book by the eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard. Fear of the “Yellow Peril” invading the Western world inevitably translated into a fear that Asian men would steal white women, sparking the passage of numerous anti-miscegenation laws and inspiring the storylines for numerous novels and films such as the Fu Manchu series.

My main point in reviewing this brief history is to demonstrate that the struggle of Asian Americans to assimilate into American society is inextricably linked to the historical depiction of Asian-American men as an emasculated sexual other. For Asian-American men who seek to reclaim a masculine identity, the solution might seem to be to assimilate into a Western paradigm of masculinity. We might consider the case of one young Asian-American man who recalled:

I am half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with. I envied the cool kids, and I wanted to be one of them. I was a bit frustrated at my parents for not shaping me into one of these kids in the past. They never made an effort to dress me in stylish clothing or get me a good-looking haircut. I had to make every effort to rectify this. I had to adapt. 

The above quote is taken from a memoir written by Elliot Rodger, who killed six and wounded thirteen in a May massacre in Isla Vista, California. For Rodger, masculinity was defined by being sexually successful with numerous women, the more attractive the better. In his memoir, Rodger writes at length about his desire for a “beautiful blonde girlfriend” and complains that women don't see him as attractive due to his Asian heritage. In the final video on his YouTube channel, he expresses his belief that as a “gentleman”, he is entitled to sex: "For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I've been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex and love to other men but never to me."

Rodger is obviously an extreme example of an Asian-American man attempting to recoup a masculine self-image. Nonetheless, his ideal of masculinity as being measured by sexual success is one which many Asian-American men have adopted. Take "pick-up artist" JT Tran, who hosts dating bootcamps meant to help Asian men "repair deflated self-confidence and inadequate social skills".[4]{C}{C} Well-known street artist David Choe was criticized earlier this year after he talked about forcing a masseuse to perform oral sex on him to prove that Asian men aren't all shy and unattractive.[5]

To lay claim to an American conception of manhood, Asian-American men need to critically assess exactly what masculinity entails. All too often, it seems as though we must either embody a white patriarchal model of male sexuality or risk being erased as sexual subjects entirely. Two adjustments are needed to avoid such a false dichotomy: a better representation of Asian-American men in the media coupled with an enhanced discourse about how we can construct “male-ness” in a way that is more compatible with feminist ideals.

In terms of this first goal, we might look to examples like Selfie which represent Asian-American men as robust characters, rather than as foils for white lead actors or familiar one-dimensional stereotypes such as the martial arts master and the computer hacker. More radically, we can consider mediums which portray Asian-American men as sexual agents in a more direct manner, such as "Skin on Skin", a pornographic film by UC Davis Professor of Asian American Studies Darrell Hamamoto featuring all Asian-American actors and actresses, and "On a Bed of Rice," a collection of erotic poetry and literature by Asian-American authors.

Discourse on the subject of Asian-American masculinity, in keeping with the theme of this issue, should begin with questions of exclusion and difference. On one hand, why do Asian-American men continue to define their own masculinity by the exclusion of traditionally feminine traits and practices? On the other, why are Asian-American men, regardless of the extent to which they display masculine traits, afforded less recognition as male subjects than white men who display the same traits?




[3] Asian American women and men: Labor, laws, and love